Happy Pioline manages to hold his nerve

First home victory in Monte Carlo since 1963 augurs well for French Open as 31-year-old takes title
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The Independent Online

After two sets, a French news agency flashed the message yesterday that Cedric Pioline had won the Monte Carlo Open, forgetting that the final is played over the best of five.

Then, as Dominik Hrbaty served when trailing 5-6 in the third set, a ball-boy waiting in the wings for the presentation ceremony released three white balloons, which were probably flying over Nice before Pioline finally stepped forward to receive the most prestigious trophy of his career from Prince Albert.

Pioline, due to mark his 31st birthday in June, is accustomed to premature celebrations. He has been a runner-up 12 times, including defeats by Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 1997 and at the United States Open in 1993, and by Sergei Bruguera and Carlos Moya here, in 1993 and 1998 respectively.

The anxiety for a result was understandable, given that the Monte Carlo Country Club has not hailed a French men's singles champion since Pierre Darmon in 1963, and considering that more than two-thirds of yesterday's match was played in drizzle.

One of the advantages of clay courts is that matches that would not even be started on grass or concrete can be completed if the rain is not heavy. The last of the umbrellas in the crowd of 7,500 was lowered in time for everyone to admire an exciting climax, with Pioline prevailing, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6, after two hours and 41 minutes.

The ball-boy's uncertain hold on the balloon strings was no worse than Pioline's nervous approach to serving towards the end of the contest. Several times the No 8 seed tossed the ball and let it drop, a sign that he either distrusted the wind, or his confidence, which had been tested by the unseeded Hrbaty throughout the match.

Hrbaty served for the third set at 5-4, Pioline returning a second serve at 30-40 that lured the 22-year-old Slovak into netting a forehand for 5-5.

The next game was a marathon 24 points over 17 minutes and 25 seconds. There were nine deuces, and Pioline saved four break points before Hrbaty was unable to clear the net with a forehand - a feat Pioline narrowly performed with a backhand on the previous point. "I think there was only one of the four break points that I could have played better," Hrbaty said.

In the concluding tie-break, Hrbaty recovered from 0-2 to lead 4-2, only to double-fault at 5-5 to present Pioline with the first match point. Hrbaty erased that, brushing a sideline with a backhand return. Pioline served his way to the second match point, Hrbaty netting a backhand.

The final point was one of the best of the afternoon. Hrbaty missed his first serve, but hit the second soundly and began to move Pioline about the court, probing for an opportunity to deliver a winning shot. The fascinating rally ended with Pioline slicing a backhand down the line and Hrbaty netting a forehand half-volley.

"I just told myself, 'hold on as much as you can, try and hit it one more time than he does'," Pioline said. "It might not have been the prettiest shot of the match, but it was the most important.

"It's a great feeling to win here. I don't even remember how the match went, I just played point after point."

Hrbaty, it may be remembered, gave Andre Agassi a difficult time in the semi-finals of the French Open last year, the American winning a rain-delayed duel in four sets and going on to become only the fifth man in history to complete a set of the four Grand Slam singles titles.

"I think Cedric was more nervous than me, and he has played in two Grand Slam finals," Hrbaty said. "There were just a few key shots at the end of the sets or in the tie-breakers. He played good shots, and he was a little bit lucky. And he took it. That was the difference between us."

It was Pioline's fifth title, and his first on home ground. His first was in Copenhagen in 1996, and he was a winner again there in February, defeating Tim Henman. Pioline's other titles were in Prague in 1997 and Nottingham last year.

Was it his last chance to win a Masters Series tournament? "I did not think about that. When one is on the court, one plays. One does not think one is 20 or 30. The first time you win a tournament like this there's a lot of emotion. You always have dreams, and you tell yourself you're going to lift this cup. And when it happens, it's strange."

Stranger things may happen. Like old man Pioline winning the French Open.

* Greg Rusedski has been given a bye in the first round of this week's clay court tournament in Barcelona. He will play either Karim Alami or Max Mirnyi in the second round.

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